European appeal could lead to libel law change

Multinational McDonald’s has restaurants in 119 countries

ultinational corporations could lose the right to sue for libel if a pair of anti-McDonald’s campaigners win a case due to be heard at the European Court of Human Rights in September.

The McLibel two (Helen Steel and Dave Morris) were first sued by McDonald’s in 1990 for handing out leaflets that attacked the fast food chain on nutritional and ethical grounds. After the longest libel trial in English legal history (314 days), in which the pair represented themselves, a judge ruled parts of their leaflets did libel the fast food giant.

The latest appeal is under Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights. A decision in their favour would be binding on UK law.

The pair will argue multinational corporations should not be allowed to sue for libel because they should be “subjected to unfettered scrutiny and criticism (as applies to governmental organisations) since they have huge power and influence over people’s lives and the environment”.

They will also argue that the huge imbalance in resources, and the “archaic defamation laws and procedures”, made it impossible for them to have a fair trial.

Media lawyer Rebecca Jackson, from Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, said the case was a “wide-ranging attack on English law”.

She said: “At the moment, government bodies aren’t allowed to sue for libel. This is because it was recognised (in the Derbyshire County Council case) that if they were allowed to sue this would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. People should be allowed, or even encouraged, to criticise government bodies. What the McLibel two are saying is that the same rule should apply to multinational corporations, given how powerful they are these days. Government bodies can of course still sue for malicious falsehood.

“Libel law in England is firmly pro claimant. The McLibel two are challenging many of the rules which make it so. If the European Court agrees with them that the current law is having a chilling effect on the free speech rights of critics of powerful corporations, we could well see a shift in the balance towards freedom of expression.

“It is difficult to predict exactly what the European Court will make of this challenge. The attack is very wideranging.

They may pick up on certain points but not others.”

In a statement, Steel and Morris said: “Our legal marathon is now drawing to a close, the McLibel trial ended with egg all over McDonald’s public face, but now we’re taking on the Government to challenge the UK’s oppressive and unfair libel laws.”

By Dominic Ponsford

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